Dr. Stat

Dr. Stat is a Statistics Professor. This blog is his opportunity to share ideas and opinions about education (especially math education), politics, and whatever else comes up.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Book Review

I recently finished reading "Common Sense Economics" by Gwartney, Stroup, and Lee. This is an excellent little book and I highly recommend it for everyone. Really! It is non-technical, and explains things in, well, a common sense way. I finished almost every chapter with the feeling that I had just been told things that I already knew in my gut were true, yet had not consciously understood. There are important insights here about politics, in particular short-term thinking versus long-term thinking (you knew that too, didn't you?), as well as why nothing ever seems to get done in Washington. It's all economics, really. No kidding! And I became a statistician because I thought it would allow me to understand what politics was all about. Oops.

Catching Up a Little

I guess someone is reading my blog....
Edwonk wrote in the comments,
Everything OK? I've been missing your posts...

Thanks! Yes, everything is OK. I am just busy with other things this summer and only have dialup access. Anybody know how we ever lived in a 56K (really only 24, that's all I get) world? I hate web surfing on dialup....web developers these days have no concept of limited bandwith. Ten years ago when we did web development it was all about conserving, doing the most with the least amount of transmitted information. Now it's all about sending tons of pretty pictures. bah, humbug.

Miller Thomas Smith wrote me a comment in the article below also. He disagrees with my industrial analogy for education,
Children are not the product in education. The quality of the education offered is the product.

Well, OK. Did you read all the posts in this series? You seem to have rather missed the point(s). He says choice is the answer, an observation with which I tend to agree. This, however, takes us into new territory which I have not addressed, and I don't intend to do so now, either.
The model offered is kin to saying that a fast food joint is responsible for the eating habits of its customers rather than providing clean and desirable food for the customers. If a customer throws that food at squirrls that is not a refection on the job of the fast food joint.

No, that's not exactly right. A fast food joint (FFJ) clearly produces food. We know what the product is. They do not pretend to sell something abstract, such as, for example, "satisfaction," "satiation," or "the ability to cognitively analyze and explain the effects of eating a hamburger." The customer of the FFJ is also clearly identified: he's the one in front of the counter, asking for food and paying money. The workers are clearly identifiable, they're putting the food together, packaging it, distributing it, and collecting money. And the managers are pretty much identifiable as well, although in an FFJ the distinction between worker and manager may be somewhat less clear than in other businesses. Mr. Smith is trying to turn my analogy on its head. He wants to say what an FFJ would be like if it were a school. That's OK, but not the purpose of my discussion. Still, let me run with this for a bit.

If an FFJ were like a school, then the state would pass a law that people of certain ages would have to go to an approved FFJ on a daily basis. The state would provide tax supported FFJ's to which people could go for free. Otherwise, people could choose private FFJ's for which they would pay, if they were not satisfied with the free ones. The purpose would be to produce health and growth in the attendees, which I will call eatents (a play on students). The eatents would go to the FFJ, where they would be greated by an eatcher (a play on teacher, are you getting this?) who would have arranged to have all the materials necessary for the eatents meals on hand and organized. The eatcher would have instructions, recipes, menus, etc., as needed, ready to go. The eatents would then be guided by the eatcher to prepare and eat their meals and clean up. Now suppose further that the meals were designed scientifically to be optimal for health, and not necessarily good tasting. Suppose also that some were quite difficult to make, especially for younger children. Suppose also that some require long, repetative effort to make. Now you have school.

Some students will not be hungry, because they will have eaten other things. Since this is free and compulsory, they will tend not to value the experience. Since the goal is abstract, that is enhancing health and growth, they will not immediately appreciate the activity. The sensation which should be the reward of this activity (satiation) can be obtained in other ways. Some parents will not be very supportive of the eatcher's efforts. Some homes will not provide the kind of supportive environment that leads eatents to value and appreciate health and growth. And of course, the whole enterprise will be plagued by constant budget problems. Now you have the problems of eduction.

In any case, this scenario provides the kind of confusion I have described regarding the roles of worker and customer. The eatents are the workers, as well as the recipients of the benefits (supposedly). The customers might be the eatents, or the parents, or society at large. It's not completely clear. The product is not simply food, it is health and growth, which incidently can be obtained outside the established institution.

If the product supplied by schools was simply information, they could be replaced by libraries or the internet. This would be analogous to the FFJ supplying food as its product. To say that "the quality of the education offered is the product" makes no sense. No one really sells quality, though it makes a nice advertising slogan. Quality is a characteristic of a product, not a product in itself. "Children are not the product in education," but changes in children are the product of education. The changes are non-tangible and not readily valued by the children themselves. Furthermore, these changes only occur if the children do the work required to produce the changes, and they occur most effectively if the work is guided by competent managers called teachers.

My belief, and the purpose of writing these articles, is that by understanding education in these terms we can be more effective in analyzing and solving problems in education, and in improving the quality of education. However, I wouldn't want to make yet another "education theory fad" out of it!